Hong Kong: The People vs The People’s Republic

On Sunday 9th June Hong Kong once again saw the streets flooded with protesters as hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets against the proposed extradition arrangements with China, Macao, and Taiwan. In this piece, Hong Kong-based security analyst Alexander Stafford examines the consequences of the Special Autonomous Region’s largest protests in over a decade.

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Organisers estimated attendance for the initial protest march at over one million, making it the largest the city has seen since 2003, raising the spectre of social unrest; anathema to Beijing. Although the Legislative Council (LegCo) proceedings have now been suspended, with Chief Executive Carrie Lam saying she will seek further consultations and implying that the bill will not pass this year, it is probable that the issue of extradition will return in some form despite the protests of Hong Kongers and the concerns of the international community.

The Hong Kong Government’s climb-down appears to be a triumph for people-power in a city where the level of political activism puts most Western societies to shame. Such demonstrations are needed because Hong Kong is not a true democracy, despite often being cited as such. The system bestowed on the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) following the departure of the British in 1997 is in truth more of an authoritarian regime with democratic window-dressing than true rule of the people. Heavily weighted in favour of the pro-Beijing establishment, with “business functional” constituencies providing 35 of the 70 members of the LegCo, the electoral system ensures Beijing’s influence is irresistible despite a reliable and healthy voter turnout for the territory’s myriad of pro-democracy, localist and pro-Independence parties.

Concerns that an extradition agreement with the mainland would be open to abuse and endanger the freedoms of the Hong Kong public more broadly seem justified given China’s current intolerance to dissent from all quarters, even to humorous extremes such as banning Winnie the Pooh. Indeed, changes to the extradition arrangement, which US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said “chillingly showcases Beijing’s brazen willingness to trample over the law to silence dissent and stifle the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong”, are only the latest in a string of encroachments into Hong Kong’s political and legal spheres by the mainland in recent years. Since the Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central protests of 2014, several pro-democracy activists have been jailed on minor or trumped-up charges. This list includes Umbrella Movement activist Joshua Wong, and six pro-democracy LegCo members who won seats in the 2016 elections, but were disqualified from their elected positions following judicial reviews into their official oath-taking. Freedom of the press has come under serious attack, and fears have been growing over Beijing’s willingness to wade in and pass judgement on Hong Kong’s separate legal system, with a 2014 Chinese government White Paper saying that Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” is in fact subject to oversight from Beijing, including in legal matters pertaining to the interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

There is a case to be made for some form of extradition agreement, the need for which has been recognised since before the 1997 handover. More recently however, the lack of an extradition treaty between Hong Kong and Taiwan has led to the high-profile case of Chan Tong-kai, which was seized on by lawmakers as evidence of the bill’s necessity. Chan, who murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan and escaped to Hong Kong, was imprisoned on the lesser charge of money laundering on his return to Hong Kong but is currently safe from facing murder charges in Taiwan. However, concerns over the scope of the bill and its potential to undermine, if not completely overturn, the One Country, Two Systems model are well-founded. Should it ever pass, the bill will put Hong Kongers, as well as foreigners visiting the city, on the event horizon of China’s black hole legal system.

Leaving aside the Chan case, the question is posed as to why the extradition amendments are being proposed now and if the end result is really worth the trouble for Beijing. While the ability of Chinese dissidents, businessmen and corrupt officials to flee to Hong Kong has long frustrated Beijing, the hitherto lack of an extradition agreement has not stopped the long arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from reaching into Hong Kong. The case of the Causeway Bay booksellers and the abduction of Xiao Jianhua in 2017 prove that extraordinary rendition is a tool China is more than willing to use. Given Hong Kong’s history of mass protests and desire to remain somewhat separate from the mainland, it is hard to believe that either Beijing or the LegCo expected such a bill to pass without scenes the like of which have taken place this past week. It is also unlikely that Chief Executive Lam would unilaterally embark on such a controversial piece of legislation without the backing of Beijing, which has been reaffirmed by Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. 

It is difficult to know to what extent Beijing may have been behind the extradition bill, and Carrie Lam has insisted that the idea was entirely her own – a claim supported by China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming when he warned the UK against intervention over the issue. Following the passing of other controversial legislation in recent years like the national anthem law, along with the failure of protests to prevent the establishment of mainland immigration checks in West Kowloon, Lam may have believed she could pass the extradition bill without any major issues. What seems likely is that Lam miscalculated the mood of the people and saw an opportunity to please Beijing by moving ahead with the bill, only to be told to back down when opposition erupted. If this is the case, Lam has probably damaged her credibility with the CCP, as backing down in the face of popular protest is not something Beijing will want to establish a precedent for. The China Daily was keen to downplay the success of the protesters by praising the “administration’s responsiveness to public opinion” having previously claimed broad support in the HKSAR for the bill, while the nationalist newspaper the Global Times made characteristically shrill claims that foreign influences were driving the protests. Although the Chinese press unsurprisingly low-balled the number of protesters while playing up the level of violence instigated by the predominantly peaceful crowds, the Hong Kong police’s reputation has also suffered, with their heavy-handed approach drawing criticism from foreign observers and further tarnishing a reputation already damaged by their handling of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. With the police now on their best behaviour under heavy international scrutiny, Hong Kongers continue to take to the street in vast numbers to demand the complete withdrawal of the bill and the resignation of Carrie Lam. Lam, who has delivered a contrite apology, looks to have established herself as the most unpopular Chief Executive in Hong Kong’s history and may now have lost the confidence of Beijing.

Beyond Hong Kong, One Country, Two Systems is often used to gauge what Taiwan could expect should it one day rejoin the mainland. Seeing the continued creeping authority of the mainland in Hong Kong may influence Taiwanese voters when they go to the polls next year in the forthcoming presidential elections. Furthermore, it could even play a role in the current challenge to president Tsai Ing-wen’s leadership of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) by her former premier, William Lai, who is a more vocal advocate for Taiwanese independence, and even shore up the DDP vote after a poor showing in local elections last year.

Given the challenges to their semi-independence over the past five years, Hong Kongers could be forgiven for feeling a sense futility in their dealings with the mainland. The events of the last week however show that there are limits to how hard Beijing is prepared to push, and may offer some hope that the city can continue to push back against the central government. But for how long people-power can last against their pro-Beijing government and the sheer weight of their gigantic neighbour remains to be seen.

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Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defence affairs writer specialising in naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in Hong Kong, where he now focuses on South China Sea maritime security issues.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Iris Tong